The Jan. 6, 2011 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune includes an article by Derek P. Jensen titled “Becker, Bell launch new push for civility.” The initiative, with strong support from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Lt. Governor Greg Bell, is committed to increasing civility in our community. “…Public discourse has grown too acerbic, conversations too combative, and the state’s politics too polarized to be healthy,” say Becker and Bell. “A new Utah Civility and Community 2011 initiative is a call to action designed to restore decorum and a respect for divergent opinions throughout the state,” writes Jensen. And not a moment too soon. The events in Tucson just two days later have stirred Americans to begin a nationwide conversation about civility—or the lack of it—in our lives. Two U of U staff members, Linda Dunn, director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, and her husband Mike Dunn, general manager of KUED are members of the committee that organized the new group. They graciously agreed to answer a few questions about this initiative.
FYI NEWS: How did the group get started and what are its goals?
LINDA DUNN: The Utah Civility and Community 2011 Initiative seeks to encourage and assist individuals, schools, civic groups, religious organizations, businesses, local communities, the media, and elected officials to set sustainable goals to be more civil, welcoming, inclusive, and caring and to act on those goals. The initiative is under the leadership of John Kesler and the coalition with notable support of Lt. Governor Greg Bell and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. The core of the coalition came from another working group called the Coalition for Service, Character and Service-Learning. Key educational, political and community leaders have come together to develop, support and launch the initiative.
MICHAEL DUNN: Over the past many years, our public discourse has devolved from the thoughtful, respectful tone required to accomplish things and make meaningful change in society, to a decidedly more shrill, ugly, and divisive tone. The effect has been polarizing. Seeing the negative effects of this on our democracy, the civility initiative was created as a grass roots effort to urge our citizenry to be more civil, caring and inclusive.
FYI: Why did you personally want to be part of this initiative?
LINDA DUNN: At the core of our civic values is the need for civility. The Bennion Center fosters lifelong service and civic participation by engaging the University with the greater community in action, change, and learning. The heart of our mission is to support others in developing their own views of the world—serving and expanding their own ideas, and then being able to live and work among people that may share the same views or may have radically different ideas. My hope is that the student leaders and volunteers that come through the Bennion Center will model the values of civility and literally “pass it on.”
MICHAEL DUNN: At KUED our mission is to be “Utah’s best storytellers.” We are all about the narrative elements that shape and define our lives here in Utah. So we want to support anything that fosters and encourages meaningful discussion about our society both past, present and future. Without the mutual respect that comes from genuine civility, meaningful dialogue is stifled or sometimes avoided. We must talk to each other. And we must listen to each other. Only by sharing and considering viewpoints different from ours does our vision and empathy broaden.
FYI: What do you understand as the reasons for the decline of civility in recent years?
LINDA DUNN: As technology has progressed, our society has had more opportunity to communicate openly and publicly. This increase of communication has given us the opportunity to share widely a proliferation of inappropriate, indecent, and uncivil dialogue. Between television political debates, sit-com mentality, and violent video games we have seen the behaviors that emerge from such a saturation of communication. In addition, stress is a large factor in people snapping, bring rude, and less civil towards each other. We certainly are living in a time that has provoked more stress and tension in individual people’s lives.
MICHAEL DUNN: This is a complex and difficult issue. However, I really believe that our core nature is to be civil. Consider that our society was shaped and defined by conversations over backyard fences and in the public square. We may not agree with our neighbor. We can respectfully agree to disagree—and still be friends. But today most people function at a tempo and pace that does not allow for those interpersonal connections. Instead we feed our electronic lifestyles with sound-byte information that we self-select and then shuttle through without deep reflection. And instead of considering different points of view, too many people insulate themselves and consume media and friends that only reinforce their opinions.
FYI: What are a few things people can do to promote a more civil society?
LINDA DUNN: Launching a large scale campaign to raise awareness is an obvious step. It gives all of us the charge to figure out how we can participate and make an impact in our own arena. We are promoting civility at the U by providing education on the real issues that are affecting our community and society. And we’re teaching students how to communicate their ideas in an open and safe environment. We’re hosting public forums and dialogues and connecting students to these types of opportunities on a regular basis through our Hinckley-Bennion forum series and Monthly Service House dialogues. Creating opportunities for citizens to be reminded what it means to be a citizen is the responsibility of everyone.
MICHAEL DUNN: The genius of our democracy is the vibrant, unedited marketplace of ideas. We have the greatest nation on earth because of our tradition of being open, honest, and defenders of freedom. That kind of expression must continue to flourish. I believe it will as it is encouraged and championed by parents, teachers, leaders, and the media. We must model it in both our private conversations and our civil discourse. Respect, courtesy, and politeness must come back in vogue. We would do well to return to the ideal of conversations over that backyard fence. We must view dialogue and communication as an opportunity to learn and consider new ideas, develop relationships, build bridges, and not see communication as a threat to our closely held and sacrosanct beliefs.